Carrying the Cross of same-sex attraction
Courage and EnCourage offer support, love
by Fr. Kyle Schnippel
In March 2014, I was transferred from the vocation office for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and into a yet-to-be named parish, where the course of my priesthood would be changed in a way I never thought possible. Archbishop Dennis Schnurr asked me to take on the formation of a chapter of Courage International within the archdiocese. My initial reaction was a mixture of many things, not the least of which was: “There’s no way I can do this!” Yet if Archbishop Schnurr thought I was the best person to do this, I would certainly give it a try!
Five years later, this ministry has changed my priesthood in ways I never thought possible, and the weekly walk with the Courage members is a source of great strength and consolation for me.
The Five Goals of Courage
As a ministry, Courage was founded by the late Fr. John Harvey, OSFS, in the theater district of New York City at the request of Cardinal Terence Cooke, then archbishop of New York. Fr. Harvey recognized a unique pastoral need among those who experienced same-sex attraction and who were seeking to live within the teachings and bounds of the Catholic Church. This first cohort, some of whom are still regular attendees of Courage meetings and conferences, were the authors of what have come to be known as the Five Goals of Courage. Nearly 40 years after that first Courage meeting, these Five Goals continue to guide the work of the apostolate:
1. TO LIVE CHASTE LIVES in accordance with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality (Chastity).
2. TO DEDICATE OUR ENTIRE LIVES TO CHRIST through service to others, spiritual reading, prayer, meditation, individual spiritual direction, frequent attendance at Mass, and the frequent reception of the sacraments of Penance and Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist (Prayer and Dedication).
3. TO FOSTER A SPIRIT OF FELLOWSHIP in which we may share with one another our thoughts and experiences, and so ensure that no one will have to face the problems of homosexuality alone (Fellowship).
4. TO BE MINDFUL OF THE TRUTH that chaste friendships are not only possible but necessary in a chaste Christian life; and to encourage one another in forming and sustaining these friendships (Support).
5. TO LIVE LIVES THAT MAY SERVE AS GOOD EXAMPLES to others (Good Example/Role Model).
These Five Goals continue to be read at every meeting of Courage, and they guide the work of the apostolate on a daily basis.
A plan for holiness for all
What I have come to realize in my work with Courage is that these five goals are a good pattern of life not just for those who experience same-sex attraction, but they are really a pattern of life for any Catholic trying to live his or her faith more completely.
I wonder what the Church could be like if we all strove to actively seek chastity according to our own state in life; if we all strove to be people of prayer and dedication, seeking to embrace the sacramental life of the Church with vigor and vitality; if we sought a true fellowship around the particular ways that Jesus has called us to embrace the cross; if we reached out to give support to our brothers and sisters in need, while also reaching out to ask for support when we are at a low point in our journey of faith.
And finally, how would our Church and world be different if we all sought to be active role models and examples of the faith to every person we met. The model and framework of Courage and EnCourage (a ministry within Courage that gives support to relatives and friends of people with same-sex attraction and/or gender dysphoria) provide the structure around which we Catholics can truly set the world on fire!
Some might wonder why an apostolate such as this is even necessary. We hear the narrative in the secular world that the “Church hates gays,” and there is an active thread in that narrative that calls for the Church to welcome everyone “as they are” and to build bridges between seemingly opposite camps. After all, Jesus preached a message of compassion and peace, right? Shouldn’t we accept them as they are and embrace their chosen identity?
Support for families
For EnCourage members, the journey is similar. Founded in the mid-1990s, the apostolate recognized that there were also unique and special demands placed on family members of those who identified themselves as gay or lesbian. For their parents and siblings, this can be a great trial as they see their loved ones drift away from the Church and embrace a culture that is at odds with God’s plan for sexuality and relationships.
To help their own spiritual needs and to address the questions leveled to the Church, it is important to turn back to our first principles and embrace what has been handed down to us from the beginning: that we find our true peace and freedom not in a label nor in an identity, but in Jesus Christ and in the teachings and practices that he has outlined.
Admittedly, this is not always easy because sin is in the world, and we are all affected by it. As G.K. Chesterton put it: “Original sin is a fact as practical as pota-toes” (Orthodoxy, chapter 2). Sin affects and impacts every relationship that we have. It affects our desires and wishes. It clouds the judgment and impairs the soul, limiting our freedom to act as we should.
The mission of Courage speaks right into this cloud of despair because we see our members as sons and daughters of God who seek this freedom. We see in the participants the faces of those who know the cross of Christ Jesus. We see in them those who have often tasted all the delights of this world and found them wanting and vapid. It’s what Pope Francis so eloquently calls “the culture of the ephemeral,” the throwaway culture of our modern world.
In Courage, these men and women find a peace and joy that the world cannot know, but it is always found in the surprise and the unexpected. For them, the cross becomes lighter (but still present!) because of the fellowship they experience. In this, they know the face of the Savior because they have often confronted the face of the Evil One, as well.
In Courage, these men and women find a peace and joy.
‘My pathway to heaven’
One member, who comes to the chapter where I serve as chaplain, put it so beautifully. A married man, a father and grandfather, he was talking about the day his wife found out that he experiences same-sex attraction and has various sexual addictions to pornography and masturbation. He admitted that it was the darkest day of his life, and it was and is an experience that he does not wish upon his worst enemy, because it is difficult and lonely.
Yet he said in a statement of great faith, “I have come to realize that the way I pick up this cross, the way I embrace what Jesus is doing in my life through this experience, this, this is my entrance into salvation. This is my pathway to heaven. I just hope to carry it with some grace and dignity.”
I have used this man’s statement in homilies, in counseling, and in my own prayer often as a constant reminder that the pathway to heaven is not found in living life fully in this world, but is found solely through the cross of Jesus Christ, even if that cross is at times heavy.
But what has been truly inspiring to me is the way participants in Courage and EnCourage have picked up their crosses, with Jesus, and have found life in the midst of that journey. I think of times when members of Courage have reached out to ask for support, and prayers have come flooding back in. I think of a few meetings between members of Courage and EnCourage that have given hope to family members that maybe one day their loved one will return to the Church.
Finally, I think of the reports on the fifth goal (Good Example/Role Model) and how the members of Courage have reached out to those whom they know are wrestling with their own sexual identity to tell them how they themselves have found peace and joy and life in Christ Jesus. It is a great inspiration to me as a priest and to their brothers and sisters in this apostolate.
The work of Courage is a reminder that the Church always proposes this path to freedom, freedom in Jesus Christ, and in the sacramental life of the Church. The work of Courage is a ministry of hope that no matter what cross is given, there can be life found in the midst of that journey. The work of Courage is to build a bridge between where we are here below and the end goal of this journey: heaven.
Please pray for this important apostolate in the life and ministry of the Church!